By: Scott Way
Figure 1: Georgian Bay Coast (via Destination Ontario)
The Muskoka Lakes region are well known to Ontario boaters, but beyond the cottage country clichés is a wilderness haven for boaters of all types. The Muskokas have the cheeky moniker ‘the Hamptons of the North’ with good reason; their natural charm has escaped local secrecy and now attracts cottagers and boaters from around the globe. But behind the spectacle of ‘millionaire’s row’ (there’s an unofficial one on each of the ‘Big Three’ lakes) and the gossip at the general store about which Hollywood star is in town, there are dazzling waterways for boaters to explore. The region spans nearly 6500 square kilometres and is gorgeously outfitted with over 1600 lakes and 19 watersheds that connect Georgian Bay in the west with Algonquin Park in the east. There are nearly limitless options for launching, entertainment, and lodging, so with a little research you can mix it up with the locals, or you can avoid whatever hubbub gathers at the docks and seek solace in nature.
The region is as diverse as it is beautiful. From the turquoise water and ocean-like shoreline of Georgian Bay in the west, to quaint cottage country nestled among the pine-laden shores of the ‘Big Three’ lakes in the center, to the rugged wilderness of Algonquin Park in the east, there is a personality radiating from each destination.
Georgian Bay is a gateway into the Great Lakes and radiates an ocean temperament mixed with small town charm. Like an equally friendly but freshwater Newfoundland, Georgian Bay hosts large marinas with large vessels for big water fishing and commerce, yet they sit moored at the docks of quaint small towns. Hubs like Parry Sound and Honey Harbour offer a coastal town feel but without the sea salt and the tides. If you’re a recreational boater looking to explore Georgian Bay’s 30,000 Islands, or even as a terrestrial tourist with an affinity for the water, Parry Sound’s Island Queen cruise ship will take you aboard its 132 foot vessel into the largest concentration of freshwater islands in the world. You’ll feel the vastness of Georgian Bay and grasp its sheer size as a freshwater playground, it truly feels like an ocean cruise. When you get back to shore, stop at Trestle Brewing Company for lunch and libations, it overlooks the harbour and the view alone is worth the pit stop. The Parry Sound harbour is one of the most underrated waterfronts in Ontario.
Figure 2: The Island Queen (via Muskoka Tourism)
Slightly south is Honey Harbour, home to the Big Chute Marine Railway at Lock 44, an acclaimed stop for boaters and part of the greater Trent-Severn Waterway. Going through the ‘Big Chute’ is a unique overland experience that every boater will remember as it’s the only railway of its kind in North America. It consists of a hydraulic track with a cradle that slides along its length. The cradle descends into the water, allowing boats to drive over it and tie up. From there, the pulley system raises the cradle out of the water and carries you, while you’re relaxing at the helm, along the track from Georgian Bay below into the Severn River above. It’s a guarantee you’ll feel a little uneasy when your boat rises 60 feet in the air like you’re on a Ferris wheel at the carnival. With the cradle having a length of 80 feet, you’ll often find yourself intermixed with other powerboats, canoeists, and kayakers, giving you a few minutes to befriend one another while you ascend or descend into the next portion of your journey.
Figure 3: The Big Chute Lock (via Ontario's Lake Country)
Figure 4: The Big Chute Lock (via Wikipedia)
Keep heading east and you’ll soon find yourself in the heart of Ontario’s cottage country. The ‘Big Three’ lakes (Muskoka, Rosseau, and Joseph) are the predominant features, but there are so many attractions along their shores you won’t be short on options. If you trailer into the area from the south, you can launch from the wharf in Gravenhurst at the southern tip of Lake Muskoka. Restaurants, boat rentals, museums, and amenities all reside next their classic steamships, the RMS Segwun and the Wenonah II. Depending on your equipment and your plans, you can travel in your boat, in a rental, or by steamship. If it’s an adults only trip, there are sunset ‘Dinner & Dance’ cruises aboard the Wenonah II that’ll make you feel like you’re in first class on the Titanic (but with a happier ending). If you’ve got kids, the ‘Pirate Cruise’ is a riot and will have the whole family speaking in sailor jargon aboard your own ship. Shiver me timbers seadogs, it’s time to give the anchor the heave ho and explore Muskoka further.
Figure 5: RMS Segwun & Wenonah II (via Discover Muskoka)
Departing from southern Lake Muskoka in Gravenhurst, you can travel through the entirety of the Big Three lakes, making stops at local landmarks that’ll make your shore leave as much fun as your on-water adventuring. The Creative Plate Eatery offers a prime waterfront patio just outside of town with all the amenities of the adjoining Campbell’s Landing Marina. Enjoy dinner with a view and grab ice cream at the marina for dessert. It’s also a short ride to Muskoka’s most famous music venue, The Kee To Bala, an on-water historical wood building that literally rocks up and down on its joists when the crowd moves in unison.
If you’re boating from Muskoka into Rosseau you’ll find yourself following the Indian River into the town of Port Carling, a quintessential cottage country stopover with all the kitsch and charm that embodies Muskoka style. The original Turtle Jack’s restaurant sits at the water’s edge next to the locks, its dock serving as a boat resupply headquarters and a waterfront patio during the height of summer. It’s all too easy to pull into a slip for a re-supply and end up sitting dockside soaking in the atmosphere.
Figure 6: Turtle Jack's Restaurant (via Muskoka Tourism)
You can also tie up next door in front of Port Carling’s fabled ‘The Wall,’ a mural comprised of 9028 smaller pictures of local history that together create an image of the RMS Sagamo passing through the locks back in 1922. Take time to wander about, not only is the mural fascinating but there’s a collection of cottage themed retailers along the boardwalk that offer everything a vacationer or transient boater could need.
Figure 7: 'The Wall' (via Discover Muskoka Tourism)
Once you’ve restocked in Port Carling, carry through into Lake Rosseau and head northwest. Muskoka hosts several exclusive resorts with lakefront vistas, and few offer a greater view than the JW Marriott Rosseau Resort & Spa. If you’re approaching from the water, you’ll be in awe at its grandiosity as you throttle down and pull up. You’ll feel like you’re pulling up to Muskoka’s paradise, and indeed you are. A five star resort with every amenity you can imagine, there’s good reason to stay.
Figure 8: JW Marriott The Rosseau (via Destination Ontario)
Should you seek to hit the trifecta and visit each of the ‘Big Three,’ especially within a day, Lake Joseph is the northernmost of the trio and offers a different perspective than its southern brothers. To cruise from Lake Rosseau into Lake Joseph you’ll pass through the narrows at Port Sandfield Marina, and that’s another dock full of reasons to stop. One of the nicest marinas in Muskoka it has the cottage vibe in full effect and makes for a great pit stop before carrying on.
Instead of starting south and going north, you can always do the opposite and run the other way. There are several public launches in the northern part of Muskoka, there’s a full list on the Muskoka Tourism website.
One of Lake Joe’s most popular unofficial tours is the ‘boathouse tour’ as there is some spectacular architecture that can only be appreciated from the water. You won’t need a map, the lake is dotted with some truly impressive structures. Lake Joseph seemingly attracts the anglers as well, you can always count on young lads dangling a line over the bridge at Port Sandfield, and you’re apt to cruise by plenty of fishing boats with serious accoutrements on your travels. Don’t expect anyone to give up the location of their honey hole though, there are so many sheltered channels and quiet inlets it seems inevitable that dinner is just below the surface everywhere you go.
Figure 9: Lake Joseph (via Northern Ontario Travel)
If it’s the big fish you’re after, the options outside of The Big Three lakes are nearly limitless as well. The farther east you travel towards the western edge of Algonquin Park, the more rugged the terrain becomes and the less traffic you’ll see, both on water and off. Consult online resources for the best small lakes to pursue in search of big fish, you won’t run low on options. If you’ve got a small boat that’s easily trailerable you’ll be able to access the more remote spots with ease and as you edge closer to Algonquin your chances for seeing deer, moose, and bear increase, as do your chances of casting out and catching dinner. For outdoors enthusiasts who chase big fish rather than big views, the eastern portion of Muskoka is your playground.
Muskoka is ripe with preconceived notions and images of cottage country opulence, but as with all things there is more below the surface than just the luxuriant shorelines. For an area with its own signature ‘Muskoka chair,’ its reputation cottage living is certainly present, but that lifestyle rests upon the shores of some of Canada’s most beautiful lakes. If you get the chance, it’s worth travelling a few hours north of Toronto into one of Ontario’s best getaways for boating enthusiasts. Whether you go east, west, or right in the middle, central Ontario has a few different personalities to satisfy any boater’s style.
Figure 10: Muskoka Chairs (via Muskoka Tourism)